The Other Social Lubricant
There are times when I worry that as I grow older I am turning into a crotchety old man before my time. Certainly there are elements of my worldview that may come across as old fashioned or outdated today. We live in an ostensibly egalitarian society, and one which grows progressively more informal with every new social networking fad. There are times when this informality, and perhaps egalitarianism as well, rubs me the wrong way.
The worlds that make up my personal universe are ones of hierarchy and formality mixed with independence and humor. As a spirit worker and a shaman, my spirituality places a firm emphasis on behaving appropriately in one’s interactions with the gods, spirits, the dead, and fellow travelers on this strange road. In the magical tradition I was trained and work in, practitioners spend years and even decades of their lives to build their skills and advance to higher degrees of both accolades and responsibilities. And of course, there is the kink/BDSM community, in which boundaries, titles, and roles go a long way to forming the foundation of the social contract.
I don’t think of myself as particularly rigid in my expectations or expressions of these hierarchies and structures, at least not in the context of my teachers and friends. People who know me well will tell you that I tend to be on the cheeky side, and I try to find the lighter side of even the deeper aspects of my life and Work. However, I find that I grow more irritated as time goes on with what I see as the transgressing or disregarding of social and interpersonal amenities.
The last thing the internet needs is another rant about people bothering to use proper spelling and grammar, so I will try to forgo that diversion. Other folk have done it better and far earlier than I. Plus, there is no need to add to this essay’s already inescapable “grumpy old man” vibe.
What I am far more concerned with than the above mentioned manifest grammar and spelling issues that torture the our language so, is what I see as the odd familiarity that I find in growing frequency online. This is not to say that I am someone who requires “high protocol” in my correspondence or conversations. Far from it. The “odd familiarity” I am referring to is odd precisely because it seems to me that people are in fact less proper with strangers than they might be with someone they know well.
For instance, I recently received a message demanding information regarding a class I taught two and half months ago. Disregarding the fact that I addressed those exact questions during my class, the person writing the message did not bother with the social niceties that I would consider proper when asking a stranger for assistance. Seesawing between awkward informality and rapid-fire demands for information, their message established that they had taken my class and proceeded to their questions in a nearly bulleted format. There was no “I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me” or “Thank you for your time.” The “establishing shot” as they would say in the film world, was missing.
It is tempting to see this person as simply entitled, and in truth there is an attitude I have encountered as an educator in the kink, pagan, and disability communities that my obligation to someone who has taken one of my classes endures forever. However, I suspect in this case this person simply did not know how or why they should write a proper message. If pressed, I do not suppose I could easily elucidate that point myself. If I understood their questions and they got an answer, albeit a terse one, then why bother with the effort of a proper message?
The old fashioned part of me, which is inextricably bound up in the magician, shaman, and kinkster sides of myself, would say that the reason is evident: it was rude not to put some effort into the message. The problem there is that it presumes a negative consequence for rudeness. In my shamanic work, rudeness to the wrong being can quite literally be deadly (see: half of Greek mythology), and I suppose the same could be said for my magical work to the extent that magicians are generally not known for their patience with disrespect. Likewise a reputation for rudeness or brattiness in the BDSM community can make it harder to find partners or arrange play.
This line of thought however, is in itself problematic though. We should not need to look at questions of rudeness or politeness in terms of consequences. From where I sit, attempts at basic interpersonal protocol make the world run more smoothly. Social interactions without courtesy are like sex without proper lubrication, yes you can do, but it is not nearly as enjoyable for anyone involved.
This is not to say that I am a paragon of politeness. In fact, there are aspects of the social contract that I suck at. I am bad with thank you notes, sending cards on birthdays or anniversaries, and I am terrible at remembering people’s names. But I believe strongly in making an effort in my communication. I reread every email I send, try to be as careful as possible with spelling and grammar, and always respect that someone is taking time out of their generally hectic life for me or my message. Granted, there is a level of informality with my friends and family that only makes sense (if you get emails from me signed “Winty” on occasion, that likely means you).
Do not get me wrong, I like communicating with people online, and I like answering people’s questions. I have however found, as I mentioned earlier, that some people develop a sense of entitlement regarding public figures, whether in the pagan, kink, or other communities I am or have been involved in. There is a perspective that whatever fee they paid to attend an event I taught at entitles them to a lifetime of limitless access to me or my colleagues. To some extent I even believe that to have a grain of truth, but there is a fine line between my willingness to help and that help being taken for granted.
As our interactions become more virtual and we see each other in person less often, there is a temptation think of the online world as one large Turing Test, and that words on a screen do not deserve the same respect we would give to a “real” person. This of course is not the case however, and we need to remember that those words represent people. Even if Dr. Turing’s vision was to come true one could argue we would just be interacting with “people” of a different nature (and our new AI overlords will not appreciate it if we don’t even bother to spellcheck our notes from the Matrix).
It is my hope that the social contract of our online communities will with time resemble that of the “real world.” My fear is that the opposite is already happening.